Updated: Sep 14, 2020
First of five parts
Was the first automobile ever seen in this region electric? With the current push to better accommodate electric vehicles in our area, it’s an interesting question. The Grand Forks Evening Sun reported on March 3, 1905:
Grand Forks citizens will have an opportunity of seeing an automobile spinning along the thoroughfares of this city during the coming summer, for it is stated that Superintendent Hodges of the Granby company has ordered a machine, which will be delivered here early this spring.
The following week the Sun added:
Mr. A.B.W. Hodges, general superintendent of the Granby company, is a hustler in any role he essays to play. Last Saturday he went down to Spokane, purchased an electric automobile, learned to operate it, and returned to Grand Forks the following day. Tomorrow, it is said, the machine will arrive in this city — and then the fun of giving it a proper introduction to the horses of the Boundary will commence … Mr. Hodges will use his machine in making his frequent trips between the smelter in this city and the mines at Phoenix. Mr. Hodges will arrange it so that that the auto can be recharged at both ends of the line.
At the time, electric vehicles commanded a significant share of the burgeoning automobile market. They had several advantages over gasoline vehicles: they were quieter, less smelly, and didn’t require hand-cranking to start. But they lost ground after 1912 due to their limited range and technological advancements in gas-powered cars.
A.B.W Hodges drives his car in Grand Forks, ca. 1905.
(Boundary Historical Society)
When Hodges’ car arrived in Grand Forks, the Sun wasted no time making its first vehicle-related pun.
Mr. A.B.W. Hodges’ new electric automobile arrived in the city last Saturday and Mr. Hodges and a party of friends exhibited it to the unsophisticated populace by frequent drives the ought our dusty thoroughfares. Mr. Hodges acted as chauffeur, while his guests were kept busy in keeping their hats on straight. As far as the Sun knows, the machine is giving general satisfaction, although it doesn’t climb 12 per cent grades as easily as it auto.
Hodges’ daughter Marion Austin wrote a wonderful memoir about this car and other early automobiles, first published in the Boundary Historical Society’s fourth report (1964) and reprinted in Pioneer Days of British Columbia, Vol. 4.
The first time Papa drove our 1901 second-hand automobile down Bridge Street [now Market Avenue] in Grand Forks, people ran out of their homes, stores and saloons, their eyes popping, to get their first look at a horseless carriage … With two cylinders and a cooling system of water pipes that wound back and forth across the front as in the kitchen range, it made 11 miles per hour on a hard roadbed if the throttle was wide open and the wind with us.
From the above, it doesn’t sound like it was electric. Furthermore, she added: “[W]e never ran out of gas because we couldn’t go far enough away from home to use up five gallons of the crude stuff.”
Ed Salvail, who is restoring an early electric carriage that once ran in the Kootenays, says the Hodges vehicle appears to be a 1902 Autocar — in fact that is what Austin called it in her memoir, but I initially thought that was just a nickname. Autocar was from Ardmore, Pennsylvania and reputedly made the first American multi-cylinder car with a shaft drive.
“When A.B.W. Hodges went to Spokane, he may have had all intentions of purchasing an electric, but was convinced to buy a petrol car,” Salvail says. “The electric car would not have had a radiator as such and would have been massively heavy to push. No hybrids at this time!”
Hodges’ plans to drive between Grand Forks and Phoenix were kiboshed for he had trouble even getting to the smelter, despite only a slight grade. According to Austin, “With four passengers the car couldn’t quite make it. So jumping out before the engine died, [sister] Daisy and I would run behind in the dust, pushing the car the last quarter of a mile.”
It took another three years for the first car to arrive in Phoenix. The Phoenix Pioneer of Sept. 19, 1908 reported:
James McCreath, the genial head of the Greenwood Liquor company has the honor of driving the first motor car into Phoenix. He came up the hill on Sunday morning accompanied by I.H. Hallett Jr., making the trip in 45 minutes. Mr. McCreath’s machine is an up to date 18 h.p. runabout, the pride of Greenwood, and has made some good records in the valley. The big hill to Phoenix, however, proved a heavy run
Hodges sold his car to his assistant Wake Williams and in May 1907 bought a four-cylinder 20-horsepower Franklin. On July 1 of that year, the two cars raced a mile at Dominion Day celebrations in Grand Forks. Williams “won by half a headlight, having been allowed a quarter of a mile handicap.” In a rematch the following May, Williams won again. Marion Austin recalled: “Papa and Wake would go smoking around the curves at 23 miles an hour.”
A.B.W. Hodges in his second car, a 1907 air-cooled Franklin, in front of the Grand Prairie Hotel at Carson. (Boundary Historical Society)
Williams reportedly sold the car to Yale Hotel proprietor Al Traunweiser, who hadn’t learned to drive and kept the car in a room behind the hotel. On July 10, 1908 the hotel burned down, but according to Austin, “someone remembered just in time to push the car out of the building to safety.”
In October 1910, Traunweiser received a new car as a gift from his brother. The ultimate fate of the Boundary’s first automobile is unknown.
The Winnipeg Hotel, from Views of Grand Forks (1913).
The hotel was demolished a few years ago to build a liquor store.
Bridge Street (now Market Avenue), showing the Davis block at right, which is still standing, and the second Yale Hotel in the distance, which burned down in the 1950s. From Views of Grand Forks
The second car in Grand Forks appears to have been acquired by Dr. W.H. Dickson in June 1906, although it’s not known whether it was gas or electric. The third one, however, may have been electric, for it was purchased in December 1906 by Ernest Lane and Gus Parker, who both worked in the Granby smelter’s electrical department. It was said to be “of the same pattern” as Dr. Dickson’s car. Parker was president of the Grand Forks Automobile Club in 1910 and made the first car trip to Christina Lake.
By 1912, there were 27 automobiles in Grand Forks, but there’s no way of knowing if any of them were electric.
Above, both from Views of Grand Forks (1913). Donald McCallum had the local Ford dealership.
Convoy of at least a dozen cars down Central Avenue, date unknown.
The camera couldn’t keep up! (Greg Nesteroff collection)
Presumably because it was purchased in Spokane, Hodges didn’t register his car in BC. Christopher Garrish’s terrific website (bcpl8s.ca) includes data on early motor vehicle license holders in the province, although it doesn’t reveal what they drove.
The first license ever issued was on Feb. 29, 1904. The second was on March 11, 1904 to a man famous in the Kootenay: Capt. James W. Troup designed and built many sternwheelers that plied local lakes. In 1901, he moved to Victoria and took charge of the BC Coast Steamship Service. Always on the cutting edge of transportation, it’s no surprise that Troup would want to try out a new-fangled way of getting around. According to the Victoria Daily Colonist:
The finest touring automobile in the province is now in the possession of Capt. J.W. Troup. It is manufactured by the celebrated White Manufacturing Company. The vehicle is up to date in every particular and very commodious. Five persons are easily accommodated in it. The seats are heavily padded, and as a protection the sun and rain a canopy is attached. The mechanism and gear is of the very latest type.
White Motor Co. made steam-powered cars at this time.
The first license issued outside of Vancouver and Victoria was in Atlin, of all places. On May 25, 1904, O.J. Switzer got No. 16. Several licenses were then issued to car owners in Vernon and Armstrong while the first in southeastern BC was No. 106 to the Columbia River Lumber Co. of Golden on Oct. 8, 1906. Between 1908 and 1910, quite a few licenses were issued to people in Golden, Revelstoke, Cranbrook, and Fernie.
The first West Kootenay registration was Martin Cathcart (Caddy) Donaldson of Salmo on July 16, 1910, No. 1199, for a Stoddard Dayton. But the Victoria Times of Sept. 20, 1910 indicates this was actually a communal vehicle:
AUTO SERVICE TO MINES
The enterprising citizens of Salmo have invested in a 50 horse-power automobile to carry passengers to and from the Sheep Creek mines, covering the ten miles in a little over 30 minutes.
There’s a picture of this car in front of a store at Sheep Creek, ca. 1911, which appeared in Bill Barlee’s West Kootenay: Ghost Town Country, p. 90, and is seen below in the Nelson Daily News of Aug. 26, 1936.
Donaldson was another local transportation pioneer. He ran a garage in Salmo for years and was also an early aviator. Sadly, an automobile was also his undoing: he was killed when his vehicle went over an embankment on the Hope-Princeton highway in 1957. He was 79.
The first three Boundary licenses were issued on the same day — Jan. 9, 1911 — to D.J. Matheson, Dr. W.H. Dickson, and S.P. Cosgrove, all of Phoenix. They were assigned Nos. 1331, 1332, and 1333. Matheson was then mayor of Phoenix while Dickson had apparently moved his practice there from Grand Forks. His earlier vehicle came from Chicago and was not licensed in BC.
Next: Electric car heaven